With great fanfare and a Valencia Gardens visit from Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski, San Francisco’s Broadband Project premiered in 2009 with a simple idea for bridging the digital divide: free Internet access for public housing residents.
The San Francisco Department of Technology began using a municipal fiber network to give public housing residents free Internet access starting in 2008, and on his visit to Valencia Gardens, the FCC chairman declared the program a model for the country.
But three years later at Valencia Gardens and Bernal Dwellings, the Mission’s two public housing developments, most residents say they pay to use Comcast or other commercial services — that the bridge over the divide is incomplete, unreliable and too slow.
“It’s a little slow,” said Bernal Dwellings resident Jaime Amaya, 18, who had the development’s staff help him connect.
“I’m having Xfinity set up at my home tomorrow,” said another resident who is unhappy with the free service.
Both Bernal Dwellings and Valencia Gardens staff said that before they adopted the city’s service, they were assured that its fiber network was faster than most commercial Internet services. However, residents across the board described the city’s Internet as slower than commercial service.
Michael McCarthy, community broadband manager at the city’s Department of Technology, is responsible for installing and maintaining the Internet hardware at both Bernal Dwellings and Valencia Gardens. He said he recently upgraded the developments’ routers to improve their Internet connections. “We’ve had a few hiccups, but we’ve resolved them in the past few months,” he said.
However, some issues remain. Wireless access, the hallmark of the “Wifi 2.0” program espoused by former mayor Gavin Newsom, is troublesome.
“The wireless connection sucks,” said Selina Rodriguez, 19, while surfing the web at the Valencia Gardens Computer Center. “I live on the other side of Guerrero, and the signal doesn’t reach us there. The ethernet works better.” The computer center also uses city ethernet.
Valencia Gardens has “five or six” rooftop wifi antennas, according to McCarthy. Residents may have wifi, depending on where they live.
Vince Alvarenga, the manager at Valencia Gardens, is happy with the development’s ethernet access but admits the wifi connection is hit or miss. “I can get our signal across the street at Four Barrel, but not at the back of my apartment,” he said.
Although Intervention Service Director Ginale Harris said Bernal Dwellings paid about $250 to have a wifi antenna installed two years ago, residents Mission Loc@l spoke with said wifi is unavailable to them.
“We didn’t put much energy into wifi networks there, since each unit was built with an ethernet jack,” said McCarthy. “Residents can just plug in and access the Internet.”
But residents have had difficulty setting up the ethernet access by themselves, and were not aware that they can get help from the city. “If people call, I’ll help them,” said McCarthy.
Many residents who weren’t able to connect to the city’s Internet said they bought Comcast or AT&T service, both of which offer to send technicians to customers’ homes to set up their connections. And it’s too late for the city to woo back those who switched to commercial Internet contracts that lump together Internet, TV and phone service in exchange for lower rates — reducing customers’ incentive to cancel.
More people may willing to try the city’s service, however. Despite the program’s high-profile public announcements in 2008 and 2009, news of it still hasn’t reached many. “Probably half of these neighbors don’t know they have free cable Internet,” said Jaime Amaya of Bernal Dwellings. “I know my next-door neighbors didn’t know — I told them.”
The city has a $240,000 contract to provide connection hardware and installation to public housing, according to McCarthy, which it has fulfilled by “begging and borrowing from different organizations.” Citywide, the broadband project recently received a $7.9 million federal grant — in part on the sales point of bridging the digital divide. Through an agreement with partner Internet Archive, the city has no recurring Internet service costs.
Some public housing residents don’t have the luxury to enter the debate over whether the city’s free, if slow, Internet is worth it. “I don’t have a computer,” said one Valencia Gardens resident as she watched her toddler chase their dog on Wednesday afternoon. “Hopefully I’ll get one some day!”